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The amoral world of Donald Rumsfeld



‘He’s never reflected deeply enough to actually consider whether what he’s saying is the truth or a lie.’ Errol Morris on Donald Rumsfeld, Rolling Stone, April 1, 2014

Long before the depressing age of post-truth was upon us, and the Trump administration celebrated and gloried in degrading egg head expertise, one individual was making a habit of it. The late Donald Rumsfeld (pictured right), twice US Secretary of Defense, a Fortune 500 CEO, and congressman for three terms, did not let evidence and the firmness of facts trouble him. If he had a cause to pursue he would. Morality was merely an impediment to service.

Main image: U.S. President George W. Bush (L) and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld attend the dedication ceremony for the new U.S. Air Force Memorial (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

His approach towards what might be called evidence-based policy was, to put it mildly, incongruous. His attitude to the veracity of intelligence assessments of Iraq’s weapons capabilities leading up to the 2003 invasion by US-led forces, was stunningly indifferent. It made him, in the view of George Packer of The Atlantic, the worst defense secretary the United States ever produced.

When asked if there was any evidence as to whether Iraq had attempted to or was willing to supply terrorists with weapons of mass destruction at a press conference on February 12, 2002, Rumsfeld came up with his own epistemological teaser. ‘There are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.’

While this has been subsequently treated as a masterful formulation on uncertainty and knowledge, it was disingenuous. From the attacks of September 11, 2001 onwards, Rumsfeld had made it clear that he would be untroubled by any evidence that would smudge the narrative of regime change, specifically regarding Iraq. With the Pentagon in flames from the ruins of American Airlines Flight 77, Rumsfeld was already cooking up the story ahead of time. The vice-chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff General Richard Myers was instructed to find the ‘best info fast… judge whether good enough [to] hit SH@same time — not only UBL.’ No imagination is required to deduce that SH was Saddam Hussein and UBL Usama/Osama Bin Laden.

In pursuing this objective, Rumsfeld was not operating unilaterally. The contributions of other members of the Bush administration to distorting evidence or forging tenuous connections between Iraq and al-Qaeda in the so-called Global War on Terror was a collective effort. It was President George W Bush (pictured left) who made it clear after 9/11 that, ‘We were going to find out who did this, and kick their ass.’ The Bush Doctrine signalled the legitimacy of pre-emption: that the US could ‘no longer solely rely on a reactive posture as we have in the past’. Ideology would come before evidence.

With that goal in mind, Rumsfeld authorised the creation of a unit run by the under-secretary of defense for policy Douglas Feith, known as the Office of Special Plans. Its purpose was ostensibly to examine intelligence on Iraq’s weapons capabilities independently of the CIA and tangible links between the Saddam regime and al-Qaida. The term ‘Special Plans’ should have been a cause for concern, given its lengthy use in US military circles stretching back to World War II. In March 1944, US Army General Omar Bradley established a dedicated section that would ‘prepare and implement deception and cover plans for all United States forces in the United Kingdom.’

Lt. Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski, who served in the Pentagon’s Near East and South Asia (NESA) unit a year prior to the invasion of Iraq, described the activities of the OSP at length. ‘They’d take a little bit of intelligence, cherry-pick it, make it sound much more exciting, usually by taking it out of context, often by juxtaposition of two pieces of information that don’t belong together.’


'To the last, he remained a man with few regrets or moral quibbles being, according to Morris, "untouched by history". But it is important to remember that he was not alone.'


With the doctrine of pre-emption firmly in motion, Rumsfeld and other members of the administration had to show that Iraq was a pressing threat to Washington and its allies. It supposedly had WMDs. It supposedly had a nuclear weapons program. ‘Our knowledge of the Iraqi (nuclear) weapons program,’ claimed a report by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in stark warning, ‘is based largely — perhaps 90 per cent — on analysis of imprecise intelligence.’

In a profound moral soiling of his tenure, Rumsfeld also relied upon reports informed by material obtained under torture, which he euphemistically endorsed as ‘enhanced interrogation’. On December 2, 2002, he approved a memorandum from General Counsel William J. Haynes II authorising the use of 20-hour interrogations, and the liberal use of stress positions and phobias against Guantanamo Bay detainees. He questioned why, given that he had to stand for eight to 10 hours a day, some detainees should only be limited to four. Revelations of torture by US troops at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in 2004 suggested the level of approval his word had.

In reaching such decisions, Rumsfeld did not operate in a vacuum. The Bush administration embraced the widest interpretation of executive powers beyond judicial or congressional scrutiny. Staff within the Office of the Attorney General, and such notorious figures as Diane E Beaver, Staff Judge Advocate, believed that mental and physical coercion was essentially permitted against inmates as long as it did not ‘result in significant psychological harm of significant duration, eg., lasting for months or even years.’

No one familiar with Rumsfeld’s modus operandi could have been surprised by his conduct in the Bush administration. His cavalier approach to inconvenient facts and evidence was much on show during his stint as a CEO for the pharmaceutical firm GD Searle. It was under his guidance during the 1980s that the US Food and Drugs Administration approved the controversial artificial sweetener aspartame. Some achievement, given that the FDA Board of Inquiry in 1980 had warned against endorsing the drug, noting that it ‘might induce brain tumors.’ 

The new FDA Commissioner, Arthur Hull Hayes, Jr., was handpicked by President Ronald Reagan while Rumsfeld remained Searle’s CEO and a member of the Reagan transition team. When Searle reapplied for approval of aspartame, Hayes, as the new FDA commissioner, appointed a five-person Scientific Commission to review and hopefully overturn the 1980 findings. When it became evident that a 3-2 outcome reaffirming the ban was in the offing, Hayes appointed a sixth person. The deadlocked vote was broken by Hayes, who favoured approving aspartame. It was a coup for Rumsfeld and a triumph for the amorality of revolving door politics.

Rumsfeld’s reflections, noted in his memoirs and also in the documentary by Errol Morris, had little time for matters of guilt and consequence. ‘While the president and I had many discussions about the war preparations,’ he notes in his memoirs, ‘I do not recall him ever asking me if I thought going to war with Iraq was the right decision.’ But as the disaster in Iraq unfolded, it became clear, even to him, that assurances of avoiding another interventionist debacle were hollow. By way of example, he forbade staff at the Pentagon from using various terms: ‘quagmire’, ‘resistance’ and ‘insurgents’ were high on the list.

Through his transformational agenda for the Pentagon, Rumsfeld hoped to achieve regime change on the cheap. He ignored advice from the State Department that reconstruction required more personnel and resources. He loftily dismissed concerns that disbanding the Iraqi forces would have dangerous consequences for security. Even as Baghdad was being looted, he could only opine that freedom was an untidy business. The result: the US found itself bloodily engaged in Iraq from March 2003 to December 2011. Their forces would return in 2013 with the rise of Islamic State.

As for his endorsement of torture, Rumsfeld did not avoid an opportunity in 2011 to tell the CBS program Face the Nation that not persisting with such techniques as waterboarding was detrimental to US interests. As always, he could point his finger at others. ‘Three CIA directors — George Tenet, Porter Goss and General Hayden — have all said that the take from those three people that were waterboarded constituted a major fraction of all our knowledge of al Qaeda.’ To the last, he remained a man with few regrets or moral quibbles being, according to Morris, ‘untouched by history’. But it is important to remember that he was not alone.



Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Main image: US President George W. Bush (L) and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld attend the dedication ceremony for the new U.S. Air Force Memorial (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Donald Rumsfeld, US, Iraq, Iraq war, 9/11



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Existing comments

Sorry , but in Australia " defence " is spelled just that , not " defense ".

Maureen Thomas | 22 July 2021  

Thank you, Binoy. This is a very important piece especially since it reminds us that the "depressing age of post-truth" did not spring fully-formed from Donald Trump's brow. Instead, it has been cultivated for years in the service of empire by governments of all supposed affiliations in the US, the UK and elsewhere (not excluding Australia). The intervening elections only served to dress the windows of the post-truth "security state" of the Rumsfelds of this world. For proof, I would note the fact that the only people ever to be prosecuted in relation to the unlawful invasion of Iraq were those who revealed the lies and atrocities of the invaders - Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Katharine Gun. The perpetrators of the lies (whether in media or government) and the masterminds of the atrocities have all risen steadily through the ranks, their progress halted only by death, unimpeded by the alleged changes in administration.

Justin Glyn SJ | 22 July 2021  

The term 'moral bankruptcy' should never be used lightly. However, it does seem appropriate in describing the worldview of Donald Rumsfeld. The United States was founded on revolution and a vision as a new people: a nation to end all nations. A glorious future was envisioned. Rumsfeld was only one of the betrayers of this vision.

Pam | 22 July 2021  

And our very own St John Howard has also stated he has no regrets from his time as Prime Minister.

Peter Schulz | 22 July 2021  

The title could be the amoral mind of Rumsfeld, even that might be a stretch; try immoral world. I'm not sure Binoy knows what moral, amoral or immoral means nor if he considers ideologies and ethical thoughts or behaviors outside mainstream that may be necessary to protect a country in the manner Rumsfeld pledged in his role; this article repeatedly assumes his morals and thought process purely on the basis of observed perhaps immoral results, some outside his control. I can't think of a better quote than Rumsfeld's 3 states of knowing to add Binoy's 4th: there are things we know we don't know but can say we know because we knew we didn't know the meaning so we knew that the unknown is known. Amoral is the mindset thinking behind an immoral act; in the examples given there's no evidence of malfeasance. The article states Rumsfed hoped, had few regrets, was opportunistic, ignored, opined, had an idea, decided, pursued an objective, had a goal in mind, never reflected, told lies, was untroubled and came up with stuff...all functions of a mind which unless confessed by that person is conjecture at best. I didn't think much of Rumsfeld, either...

ray | 22 July 2021  

"he (Rumsfeld) was not alone", how true! I remember being present at Inter-departmental Committee meetings on Politically Motivates Violence c 2001/2. I was impressed by the restrained threat assessments presented by ASIO, ASIS, ONA & AFP. Only to hear them being told by the Chairperson that they weren't 'sexy' enough. They needed to be 'stiffened up'. With such vague metaphors the Agencies were told that their assessments had to crafted into a form acceptable to the Goverment's being in step with our US & UK friends. Yes. Rumsfeld was not alone.

Uncle Pat | 23 July 2021  

The USA has never grown up and left the Wild West in the past where it belongs. It still plays the childhood game of Cowboys and Indians. The big problem it has is distinguishing the one from the other.

john frawley | 23 July 2021  

John Frawley: ‘Cowboys and Indians. The big problem it has is distinguishing the one from the other.’ Well, for the moment, the Chinese are Indians and the Indians are Cowboys.

roy chen yee | 23 July 2021  

Thanks Binoy for an excellent and succinct analysis. Just goes to show that when significant political egos are on the line that the end invariably justifies the means. The current case in point is Xi - especially in Tibet and Xinjiang. As for Searle, the biggest user of Aspartame is Coke and Red Bull. "Additionally, Red Bull has sugar-free options, including Red Bull Zero and Red Bull Sugarfree, which are made with the artificial sweeteners aspartame and acesulfame K instead of sugar". source https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/red-bull-side-effects. As for waterboarding the Catholic church was the first known organization to use it: "Historically in the West, the technique is known to have been used in the Spanish Inquisition. The suffocation of bound prisoners with water has been favored because, unlike most other torture techniques, it produces no marks on the body." Wikipedia. CIA officers who have subjected themselves to the technique have lasted an average of 14 seconds before capitulating.

Francis Armstrong | 24 July 2021  

Excellent portrayal of Rumsfeld, but also of many people who end up in positions of great power and influence - they seek to orchestrate the world to suit themselves. Are there academic references for this article? Thank you

Kammy Cordner Hunt | 24 July 2021  

In 2004, Errol Morris released the documentary "Fog of War" about Robert S. MacNamara. That would best serve as the benchmark as to the 'amorality' of Donald Rumsfeld. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SfPwR00HXM0

Bob Groves | 24 July 2021  

Amoral behaviour, endemic to neoliberal/corporatist administrative practice, constitutes a grave and worrying impediment to ethical leadership and politics. Its justification and import into contemporary policy owes its origin to the work of Marks (1972), who dedicated his life's work to the separation of ethics from morality. This sweetener - in every sense as deceptively wicked as aspartame - has been lapped up by so-called economic reformers in every field in which profit or better returns are sought, from education and banking & finance to homeland security and international relations. Amorality has been widely critiqued for the plethora of negative consequences sullying the reputation of so-called 'ethical' leaders. What's even worse, amoral managers employ moral motivation to justify and engage in suspect leadership practices. The denouement occurs when suspect leadership practices are met with resistance: subordinates encountering substantial role stressors and shortfalls in performance become collateral victims and, to a notable degree scapegoats, of supervisor-directed deviant practices. The corporate world finetunes amorality's approach to policy perfection through workplace bullying/ostracism. Leaders then abandon the sham of ethicism and resort to a defence of amorality. Nihilism, relativism, utilitarianism and ontological excuses variously contribute to justifications for amoral behaviour, as in Singer's odoriferous instance.

Michael Furtado | 26 July 2021  

‘There are known knowns. There are things we know we know...’ etc. This is a tautology straight out a manual on operations research. It could equally have come, verbatim, out of the mouth of Robert McNamara, another DoD secretary responsible for an earlier tragic adventure on a grand scale. There are huge contrasts, however, between McNamara and Rumsfeld. The former, though equally mission-oriented, was intelligent rather than merely devious. He erred in the opposite sense to the latter in trusting too much to spreadsheet logic. But most of all, McNamara had one talent totally missing from Rumsfeld's mindset: the ability to recognise his mistake and repent of it. Too late for the millions of Vietnamese dead, but better late than never for his own integrity.

Fred Green | 28 July 2021